India A Major Foreign Policy Priority for United States

The Trump Administration has recognised India as a major foreign policy priority, a former top American diplomat has said, noting that the credit for strong ties between the two nations goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former President Barack Obama.

"I do think India has been recognised as a major foreign policy priority (in the Trump Administration) and one that from the president on down, people are vested in, and that's very encouraging," Richard Rahul Verma, the former US Ambassador to India, told PTI.

"The overall trajectory of the relationship has been quite good," he said.

Verma, 48, is currently the vice chairman of The Asia Group, a strategy and capital advisory group based in Washington DC.

"As you know, in the last two to three years of the Obama administration we made a lot of progress and all the credit goes to Prime Minister Modi and (former) President Obama. We were doing things in so many different areas, so many different dialogues, but with really tangible results. I think for people in both countries and it was our hope that progress would continue," he said.

The former envoy played a key in strengthening US-India ties during his tenure in the Obama Administration.

Terming ties with India as the single most important for the United States in this century, Verma said, “We should not just assume that because things are going well, we can let things be on autopilot."

"This is the kind of relationship that really matters to our collective futures and it really takes a lot of time and energy," he said.

In his first post-Ambassadorial interview, Verma said he thinks that the meeting between the President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June was good.

"A solid joint statement, I think was a re-affirmation of a lot of the priorities that we were focused on in the prior administration," he said.

He said he would love to the two countries developing their relationship in terms of investment in the defence sector.

"It's important that India and the United States have the kind of defence relationship and that we develop the kind of advanced technologies together that allows India to have the edge in contested domains, whether that's on land, in air, on the sea, in outer space or cyberspace. I think it's really important that India have those capabilities," he said.

Verma hoped that the US will “really pursue" the Major Defence Partner status granted to India, which is completely brand new and unique.

"I'd love to see the Congress play a more active role because they can play such an important leadership role like they did during the civil nuclear arrangement," he said.

The former American Ambassador also emphasised on increasing bilateral trade to the goal of USD 500 billion.

"The US-India economic story is again very unique that this not a zero-sum game. That if an American company opens up a plant in India, it doesn't mean a loss of American jobs necessarily. It means potentially an expansion of market share and opportunities in Asia, and I think the same thing is with Indian companies investing in the US," he said.

Much of the increase in bilateral trade will happen in the private sector and by focusing on areas " technology, innovation and high-tech co-operation and channelling a lot of the private sector innovations into the public sector, he said.

"The Indo-US civil nuclear deal is critical in that area but in other areas, such as wind and solar, there's a huge opportunity and in a range of other areas, skilling, smart cities and infrastructure particularly on homeland defence, coastal security and maritime security," he added.

Noting that there is immense potential in Indo-US bilateral trade, Verma said the sky is the limit and USD 500 billion is a modest goal.

"Think about it, we've tripled the trade in ten years.

This is without formal talks on trade and investment. This is without a bilateral investment treaty, this is without any kind of, I think, convergence in the trade and economic area.

And I think if we can reach that convergence...we absolutely can get there," he said.

About the challenges that the relations between the two countries face, Verma said there are a lot more opportunities than challenges.

"I think there is so much convergence happening. As you know, we broke every record last year in trade and visas and students. Clearly there are some differences, there are some headwinds and particularly on immigration and I'd like to see those get resolved," he said.

Responding to a question on the H-1B visa issue, Verma said one has to keep this in perspective.

"The United States probably issued over a million visas to Indian nationals last year, sixty thousand of them were H1Bs. So we have to keep this in perspective even though India gets the lion's share of H1B visas, the number of those visas is still fairly small," he said.

"There's also no doubt there have been abuses in the H1B system and that some companies have played, kind of, not straight and narrow on the rules," he added.

Verma said the Indian side has be to aware about the disruption and job loss caused by modern technologies and by a lot of jobs going offshore and hat is the way forward.

The H1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in speciality occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialised fields. The technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year.

In April, Trump had signed an executive order for tightening the rules of the visa programme to stop "visa abuses".

"We don't want to see a reduction in the interest or the kind of enthusiasm for those people who want to immigrate to the United States. My family and I are immigrants we should be encouraging and celebrating immigration and diversity in our country - that's what America stands for," the former ambassador said.

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